The Devil in the Details: The Exorcist and the Uncanny

The Exorcist is roundly seen as the scariest movie ever made, and while I disagree on that point I can totally see why it’s engendered that opinion in audiences and critics alike. The film focuses on a young girl possessed by a demon, which twists and contorts her every which way and turns her into a snarling, hate-filled wretch, excellently voiced by the late Mercedes McCambridge. The mere idea of something invading our body, bending our limbs at impossible angles and forcing us to do and say things we never would is naturally disturbing. It’s also a notoriously grotesque film, making it controversial even today, albeit to a lesser degree than in 1973.

But The Exorcist, for all of its head-spinning and vomit-spewing and improper-use-of-a-crucifix-ing, is actually at its scariest, or at least its most unsettling, when it opts for the subtle approach. Though the possessed, Gollum-esque Regan McNeil obviously draws the audience’s attention, director William Friedkin made a point of littering the film with numerous, uncanny little details.


Interview: YellowBrickRoad Co-Director Andy Mitton

Pictured: Andy Mitton

The other week I wrote about how YellowBrickRoad, an independent horror film written and directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton, did a number on me. I seriously hadn’t been that emotionally and psychologically worked over by a piece of fiction in a while. Though my essay on the movie helped me come to terms with how and why it had affected me as much as it did, I was still intrigued by this harrowing puzzle of a film. So I reached out to Mitton, a Los Angeles filmmaker originally from New England, and he was kind enough to answer my questions about YellowBrickRoad.

Daniel Link: What's the genesis of your and Jesse's premise behind YellowBrickRoad, and how does House of Leaves come into play?

Andy Mitton: At the start, we just thought the idea of hearing music from an unknown source in the forest was a fresh way to portray a ghostly presence. It was our favorite kind of scary—the uncanny, the thing that cannot be there, but is anyway. Just like that door upstairs in Navidson’s house in House of Leaves, which is among my and Jesse’s favorite books. Lynch and Kubrick also became references as masters of the uncanny and squeezing it for all its wrongness. The story within was both around maximizing the potential of that idea, and also telling a cautionary tale about the nature of ambition—something we were exploring on a personal level, anyway, just by uprooting our lives to try and make a movie. We put some of our own dream-following fears and misgivings into the emerging story of Teddy Barnes’ obsession.


None for All, All for Naught: The Dissolution of Morale in YellowBrickRoad

The more expansive selection of American Netflix has allowed me to catch up on some smaller horror movies that I never got around to, and almost all of them were good. At some point in the near future I hope to discuss Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact, Nick Murphy’s The Awakening and Ti West’s The Innkeepers, all three of which range from good to excellent. For now, though, I want to talk about another movie I watched, one which had an effect on me like no other. It’s called YellowBrickRoad, written and directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton, and it might be the first horror movie to have ever traumatized me.


Video Game Review: The Walking Dead, Season Two: "All That Remains"

That I enjoy Telltale’s The Walking Dead video game—nay, that I consider it one of the greatest games ever made—still surprises me on occasion. By the time I had gotten into the game in the latter half of 2012, I was for all intents and purposes burnt out on everything zombie-related. The Walking Dead TV series had reached its acme by the end of its first season and, according to most people whose opinions I trust, has been plunging in quality ever since. The comic series had turned into an unforgiving, nihilistic drag, with few if any sympathetic characters remaining. And David Wong’s This Book Is Full of Spiders subverted the whole subgenre, revealing a lot of zombie fiction to be a kind of desperate, wish-fulfillment power fantasy that, upon consideration, couldn’t be less appealing to me.

But the game is a far different, if still just as bloody, affair. Set in the same universe as the comic series but with an entirely new—and more likeable—cast of characters, Telltale’s episodic Walking Dead game placed emphasis on problem solving over zombie slaughter and turned each interactive conversation into a test of mediation, trust, survival, and sometimes a combination of all three. It put you in the shoes of a flawed but well-meaning protagonist, whose relationships with his fellow survivors could be drastically affected by what he did—or even did not—say. It was all the stuff I loved about the Mass Effect series but without its increasingly tedious combat sequences.


Prince of Darkness Ascends Its Throne

I often tell my friends that my opinion of a book, film or album should never be trusted until I’ve either read/seen/listened to it again or waited 48 hours. Entertainment is a largely emotional experience for me, and so I’m liable to have a high opinion of any work that gets my adrenaline pumping in spite of whatever flaws it might possess—at least until the rush wears off. I really, really liked Transformers when I first saw it and, Hell, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was one of my favourite films for years. So when I say I enjoy something, feel free to treat me like a little kid who has just ingested a pound of sugar. The stomach ache will come, just you wait.

The same applies to the inverse. Some things will leave me feeling sour after I’ve first experienced them, but whether because of the mood I was in at the time or simply due to changing tastes I’m liable to come around to liking or even loving them some months or years in the future. I initially disliked Rebellion’s 2010 Aliens vs. Predator game and it took me three years to realize that my shitty living conditions in third year of university had actually contributed to my feelings of ill will rather than the game itself. It’s actually pretty rad.

John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is another such case. Made for a fairly low budget of $3 million and released in 1987, Prince is the second entry of what Carpenter calls his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” preceded by The Thing (which I liveblogged while drunk on New Year’s) and followed by In the Mouth of Madness. It didn’t exactly thrill me on my first full viewing a couple years ago, but after watching again it during my most recent horror binge in October I’ve come around to it in a huge way. Not only is it Carpenter’s best film after The Thing, it really is a little gem that deserves critical re-evaluation.


Subverting Suspense with Lovely Molly

I first watched The Blair Witch Project six years ago, viewed in several parts on YouTube while I killed some time in the study lounge of my university residence. I’ve made a point of watching it at least once a year ever since, and the impression it left on me has only grown. It was then, and remains to this day, the single scariest film I’ve ever seen, one I will recommend to any up-and-coming horror buff at the drop of a hat, and actually one of my top five all-time favourite movies.

In spite of the overwhelming critical acclaim it received and the huge dent it made in the box office, Blair Witch never really launched any careers—at least not any big name ones. Heather Donahue went on to feature in the Steven Spielberg-produced sci fi miniseries Taken, as well as guest star on an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; Joshua Leonard has made a name for himself in mumblecore films, chief among them Humpday; Michael C. Williams has mostly made appearances in indie and low-budget horror flicks. As for one of the film’s directors and co-writers, Daniel Myrick has continued to take his stabs at the horror genre, none of which I’ve seen.

However, his partner-in-crime Eduardo Sánchez has made at least one significant contribution to horror cinema since. As with everyone else involved with Blair Witch, he hasn’t yet made it to the A-list, but back in 2011 he directed and co-wrote Lovely Molly, starring Gretchen Lodge as the eponymous character, the late Johnny Lewis as her new husband Tim, and Alexandra Holden as her sister Hannah. It is, on the surface, a fairly basic tale of a woman on her own in her haunted childhood home (Editor Daniel: Really, Dan? Is that really basic?), but Sanchez and company manage to craft a subtle little film that relies on implication and extrapolation as much as Blair Witch does and plays around with and even subverts suspense in a really interesting way.


Sloshedblog: John Carpenter's The Thing

On two previous occasions, I’ve live-blogged or -tweeted my reactions to movies while gulping down an entire bottle of wine. I really don’t drink; those instances are among the maybe two or three times I touch alcohol a year, and certainly the only times I get good and tipsy. It’s a state I find I enjoy once in a blue moon and with good cinematic accompaniment.

This New Year’s Eve, I sat down with a bottle of wine courtesy of friend and occasional collaborator Riley Byrne and a batch of brownies I had baked just that evening. My film of choice: John Carpenter’s 1982 sci fi body horror masterpiece The Thing, not so much a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 The Thing from Another World as a more faithful re-adaptation of its source material, John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There?

Though—justifiably—remembered for its revolting creature effects, the work of VFX and makeup artist Rob Bottin, The Thing is a master class in atmosphere, suspense and genuine paranoia, demonstrated especially well in its infamous “blood test scene.” Apart from starring Kurt Russell in his stoic, grizzled prime, Carpenter’s film also features great performances by veteran character actors Keith David, Wilford Brimley and David Clennon, among quite a few others. It’s a disgusting yet truly tense affair, as well as one of my favourite movies, and I’m happy to share my quite uninhibited thoughts and feelings toward it from a few nights ago.


Anatomy of a Scene: Ringu (1998) vs. The Ring (2002)

I’ve never seen The Ring. You might wonder why I call myself a horror buff even though I haven’t watched maybe the most iconic Western horror film in the last decade—oh, scratch that, The Ring turns 12 this year. Regardless, yes, it’s iconic and no, I haven’t seen it, primarily because I was still a big wuss back in ’02, with the only things resembling horror under my belt then being Alien and Ghostbusters, the latter telling you how big a wimp I was.

Another contributing factor was the overwhelming opinion within the community that any American remake of a Japanese horror film is bound to pale in comparison to the original. I don’t believe this is a statement about horror remakes in general: John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly and most recently Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead are all great and all of them remakes, re-adaptations or re-imaginings of some kind. But when someone from the West does try to reinvent a film or television show from a very different culture, I think there is an inherent risk of changing or even being completely oblivious to the context in which it was created. Cracked’s Robert Brockway pointed this out rather succinctly in a pair of articles about the perpetually-in-development American remake of Akira.

What’s funny is that I can’t tell you if the same issues apply to the American take on The Ring, again in large part because I still haven’t watched the whole thing. That being said, I have watched a single scene—undoubtedly its most famous moment—and while I can’t comment on the entirety of Gore Verbinski’s stab at remaking Hideo Nakata’s unsettling Ringu, I can say he screwed up one big part.